Jurag (George in Slovakian) Halenár is fast earning the moniker St. George in Bratislava. He helped slay the Dragons of Porto on Wednesday, then revealed the secret of FC Artmedia Bratislava's stunning success. "On Monday I stepped in a dog's mess, and assistant coach Michal Hipp told me it brings luck," he said. "It was true."
The last thing Slovakians had expected from Artmedia's first away match in the UEFA Champions League was a victory. After 40 minutes against FC Porto at the Dragão, their expectations looked likely to be met. Artmedia were already trailing 2-0 and seemingly on course for a second straight Group H defeat - then the unthinkable happened.
Peter Petráš pulled a goal back before half-time, restoring Artmedia’s belief with a delightful individual goal against the run of play. Ján Kozák added the second nine minutes after the interval. The match was wide open with Porto still creating chances, but it was Artmedia that made the most of theirs, Balázs Borbély meeting a Kozák cross to ensure victory. It was a night to remember for the Slovakian champions; the nation's first Champions League points were a reality.
The Slovakian press have become accustomed to writing about Artmedia winning against the odds. Their 5-0 defeat of Celtic FC was the talking point of qualifying, but not even that warning would have prepared Porto fans for this. Since the win against Celtic, Artmedia had gone 451 minutes without a Champions League goal. At the Dragão, on the night Porto celebrated their 112th anniversary, they hit three in under 20 minutes.
Artmedia coach Vladimir Weiss must take the credit, and his side dedicated the victory to him. "We have known for a couple of days that the father of coach Vladimir Weiss is in hospital with serious problems," Kozák said. "We wanted to cheer him up if possible.”
They did just that. Before Artmedia's opening day defeat by FC Internazionale Milano Weiss had looked relaxed, having surpassed expectations getting his side this far. On Wednesday, though, he raised the bar once again. "We played with our hearts," he said. "After Petráš scored I sent Halenár on and told the players during the break that it's better to lose 5-2 than not try to change something. It worked."
Halenár, the hat-trick hero against Celtic, had been left out as Weiss opted for a more defensive approach against his attack-minded opposite number Co Adriaanse. Artmedia were unable to contain Porto, but Weiss had studied their weaknesses and told his side to hit them down the flanks.
Adriaanse plays 4-3-3 with two wingers. In addition his full-backs, César Peixoto in particular, like to push forward and it was the space behind them Weiss exploited to the maximum. Halenár picked out Kozák with a diagonal crossfield pass and the midfielder did the rest, getting the better of Vítor Baía and Ricardo Quaresma before stroking in the equaliser.
Some profligate Porto finishing and generous defending helped Artmedia's cause, but this victory was earned. "We came more into the game after the break for a few reasons," Weiss said. "
Halenár came on and our players fought to their limits. We also had a little luck. In this phase we made use of some things we were aware of before. Porto's wingers attack a little bit carelessly at times, so we were able to change the game by focusing diagonally. This led to the first two goals. The home defence was, fortunately for us, not as strong as usual."
While Weiss pulled the strings off the pitch three players stood tall on it. Juraj Cobej, hero of the penalty shoot-out victory against FK Partizan in the third qualifying round, was again superb in goal. In front of him 23-year-old central defender Ján Durcia grows in stature with every match. He negated the threat of Benni McCarthy and his physical strength added real muscle to the Artmedia backline.
In midfield, what Kozák lacks in pace, he makes up for over distance. His tireless running and excellent touch helped Artmedia make the most of their possession and the accuracy of his long-range passing prompted most of their attacking play. He equalised from a free-kick and teed up Borbély’s winner with another. All part of the grand plan according to Kozák: "We practice set-piece situations very carefully, and it pays," he said.
Artmedia have made a habit of pulling off surprises this season. After this result there is a real chance another could be on the way. No Slovakian side has been involved in European competition after the winter break since independence in 1993. Depending on how Artmedia match up against the blue half of Glasgow in back-to-back matches against Rangers FC, that could be about to change.
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